The most magical and entertaining thing about Man of Medan is what a single missed button press can do to any given situation. If Until Dawn pulled you in with its ‘anyone can die by my hand’ approach to narrative adventure, Man of Medan is not only going scratch that itch, it’s going to rub your belly and feed you strawberries too.
Take a sequence early in the game, where our protagonists are trying to escape from their captors. You need to break a window in time with the rumble of thunder so one of them can sneak out and steal a motorboat. Succeed and the bad guys are blissfully unaware of your skulking, fail and the remaining members of the group must try to fight off the alerted guards while you clamber towards the boat before anyone spots you. From that one change in the narrative, what happens next can be very different. In several runs through the game, this section ended in differing ways each time. Someone was shot, someone escaped, someone tried to be a hero and got the whole group back in hot water. Each time that one button press being hit or missed led to kind of change, and it’s fascinating to discover what sequence leads where.
Supermassive Games’ latest horror movie simulator marks the first entry in an eight-game anthology called The Dark Pictures. Each will blend some typical horror sub-genres together and give the player a kind of directorial control over the protagonists. With opening effort Man of Medan, we get a fusion of home invasion and ghost ship as a young quintet out on a dive at a previously undiscovered location come up first against pirates, then the titular ship, a WWII vessel lost since the war. Oh and being a lost boat in a horror game, something sinister lurks on board, and it’s there for you to offer up the poor souls you control.
Each character has base traits, which are essentially cue cards for how you should play them. Is a character deemed reckless? Then it would make sense they’d ignore a warning in order to get past an obstacle. Arrogant? Then saying the dangerous thing would be logical as it is deadly. You can play against these traits, and even give the characters little arcs of sorts where they learn to be more decisive, ruthless, etc. Embracing this side of Man of Medan really gets the most out of it. Especially when you throw in the newly-minted multiplayer modes.
While it would have been just fine to have eight small slices of Until Dawn-style horror game (and to a degree you still do have that), the multiplayer really changes the formula up, and adds another layer to the death-avoidance. Knowing your own real-life pals are able to affect your chances of survival in Man of Medan seems like such an obvious addition in hindsight, and with four other friends in local pass-the-pad mode, Movie Night, Man of Medan feels so right, so entertaining. It hides some of the shortcomings well in much the same way the choose your own adventure spookiness did for Until Dawn.
From a technical standpoint, Man of Medan’s shortcoming is, without doubt, the framerate, which casually drops now and again, usually when you’re not in direct control. It’s not exactly a terrible blight, but it does detract from the rather lovely visuals, and dilutes the odd bit of tension. Luckily this is not a particularly fast-paced game, so it’s not the problem it could have been. We have been assured that a Day One patch should fix this to some degree, so happily it’s been noticed and worked on, and hopefully helps out going forward.
Controlling the characters can feel a little clunky, especially when turning a sharp corner. They’ve been really well-animated, but that, unfortunately, means they take a lot longer to turn and walk away from an obstacle. It’s mildly frustrating, but it also kind of fits in the same way tank controls did for classic survival horror. The Q.T.E. button presses remain a perfect match for this kind of game, mostly because ‘failure’ isn’t necessarily game-ending and can actually produce interesting results. A big improvement on the previous model is the ‘staying still’ scenes. Whereas Until Dawn made you hold the controller still so your character doesn’t goof up and reveal their hiding spot, Man of Medan just asks you to tap a button to match an onscreen representation of a heartbeat. It’s a much better system, and more consistent with the button prompts found elsewhere in the game.
So, what about the story? It’s a crucial part of ensuring the other parts work after all. Get that wrong and it matters far less how good the multiplayer is, how great the game looks, or how devilishly devious the choices are. It’s certainly an interesting blend of horror. It’s based loosely on a real-life story about a lost ship, and dangles some intriguing possibilities into its mystery. The gang has to not only contend with the many freaky horrors of the titular ship, but also a very human threat. The second half of the game takes the ‘home invasion on a boat’ angle from the first half, and thrusts the entire cast into this ghost ship environment, effectively sewing the two story threads together. For the most part it works quite well, with the ship’s reality-altering power only making the gang’s captors more dangerous as things get increasingly crazy. There’s some wild imagery on display later in the game, including a pretty impressive-looking beast.
The ending comes a bit too soon for my liking, no matter how it turns out, and some of these ending options feel rather anticlimactic because things don’t ramp up to the finale enough beforehand. There are still some excellent ones though, and playing with others puts back the uncertainty that repeated playthroughs on your own takes away. You might know what to do in a scene in order to survive, but does your partner? The game may suggest a way to play as a character through their traits, but another human isn’t necessarily going to read them the same way you do. The only downside of playing online with someone is you notice the weirdly long pauses in a conversation more when it’s not you in control. A minor quibble really.
Man of Medan’s cast fit standard horror tropes to begin with (including a horndog rich boy, played with enthusiasm by Shawn Ashmore), yet as the story progresses, you may well feel differently about them as events show a new side to their personalities, which is another great thing carried over from Supermassive’s previous work. The human antagonists are a tad one-dimensional (they sure do like to tell you to shut the fuck up a lot), even if they aren’t the sole focus. They fill a job required by the story, but little else.
I’m quite fond of the host of The Dark Pictures anthology. The Curator pops up between chapters to discuss your choices so far and offer hints if you want them. His ever-so-slightly condescending tone as he congratulates/chides you for your efforts so far make him an entertaining host. As the only consistent character from game to game, it’s great to have such a strong link between this and future entries.
Sure, Man of Medan has a few rough edges, but it’s a confident first step in a new series of games. It keeps the core of what made people love Until Dawn and breathes fresh life into it by adding more depth to the branching narrative system, and including an excellent multiplayer side. A little more polish and a bit more bite to the game’s finale would be nice, but this is still a hugely entertaining slice of interactive horror that brings the thrilling uncertainty of other people’s decisions to the murder party.
Man of Medan review code for PS4 provided by the publisher.
Man of Medan is out August 30 on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.